January 22, 2001

by Samuel Cotton

(This article appeared in the February 1-February 7, 1995, issue of The City Sun.)


African Americans have contended for decades with a rage born of remembrance--a resentment fomented by poignant images of black Africans captured, bound, and sent into the horrors of slavery. Some have been driven to travel to the continent of Africa, and stand on the shores of West Africa to view the actual places where the degradation of a race began. At these places, the grandchildren of ancient slaves--survivors of a holocaust--wrestle with a terrible mixture of emotions. The passions produced by the realization that the forts before them housed their African ancestors in their last days of freedom before a long voyage delivered them into the hands of cruel masters. The white hot anger that rises slowly in African Americans as they recall these events and the epithets that dance in the heads of these observers of the past, sometimes escapes their lips as curses and bitter mutterings. Occasionally, African Americans simply fulminate. These bitter expressions of resentment and grief have only been cooled and soothed by a belief that African Americans hold. The comforting assurance that the buying and selling of black African slaves ended in the distant past. Such a belief is a myth.

It has become clear that the enslavement of black Africans did not stop with the demise of the Atlantic Slave Trade. That on this very day and hour, as you read this, black Africans are bought and sold in two North African countries. In the Islamic Republic of Mauritania, black Africans continue to be enslaved by their Arab-Berber masters. Although slavery was declared abolished three times since Mauritania's independence in 1960, it persists. Slaves are given as wedding gifts, traded for camels, guns or trucks, and inherited. The children of slaves belong to the master and slaves who displease their masters or attempt escapes are tortured in the most brutal manner imaginable.

In Sudan, Africa's largest country, the Islamic Republic of the Sudan, as a result of an Islamic-vs.-Christian civil war, black women and children (mostly Christian) are captured in raids on their villages and sold as chattel slaves, sometimes, according to the UN in "modern-day slave markets."

The Mauritanian Embassy and the Sudanese Mission were contacted several times for comment-they did not return the calls.

Mauritania-A Legacy of Slave Trading

The enslavement of black Africans has existed in Mauritania for many centuries. It is a country that joins the descendants of Arabs and Berbers from the North, known as beydanes [white men], and the black ethnic communities living in the South. Blacks, mostly sedentary farmers, consisting of the Tukulor, the Fulani, and the Wolof tribes were brought north after being captured by raiding Arab/Berber tribes. This activity predates and postdates the Atlantic slave trade. Simply put, the slave trade that brought black Africans to these shores never stopped in Mauritania. "More than 100,000 descendants of Africans conquered by Arabs during the 12th century are still thought to be living as old-fashioned chattel slaves in Mauritania" says Newsweek after conducting a yearlong, four-continent investigation of slavery.

Differing only slightly with this estimate, the U.S. State Department estimates that 90,000 blacks still live as the property of Berbers, "and that's a conservative estimate," said Dr. Jacobs, who puts the actual figure closer to 300,000 when interviewed by The News Tribune. In addition, Newsweek states that "Aside from the shantytowns and a strip of land along the Senegal River, virtually all blacks are slaves, and they are more than half the population."

"Black Africans in Mauritania were converted to Islam more than 100 years ago," says Mohamed Athie, Executive Director of the American Anti-Slavery Group, [and]. . ."the Koran forbids the enslavement of fellow Muslims, but in this country race outranks religious doctrine. . . Though they are Muslims, these people are chattel: used for labor, sex and breeding."

Africa Watch reported that "Religion has been used by masters as an important instrument to perpetuate slavery. Relying on the fact that Islam recognizes the practice of slavery, they have misinterpreted it to justify current practices. In truth, Islam only permits treating as slaves, non-Islamic captives caught after holy wars, on condition that they are released as soon as they convert to Islam. People living as slaves in Mauritania long before the first abolition in 1905 were all Moslems, but this did not lead to their emancipation. We received numerous complaints about the extent of which qadis (judges in Islamic courts) continue to exercise their judicial functions to protect the institution of slavery, rather than to ensure its eradication."

Successive regimes outlawed slavery in 1905, at independence in 1960, and most recently in 1980. These edicts were only lip service and window dressing. The proof is that since independence all economic and political power have remained firmly in the h ands of beydanes.

The Sudanese government never passed any laws providing punishment for enslaving black Africans and they never bothered to tell many of the slaves about emancipation. In 1980, the government sought to have its ruling ratified by a body of religious jurist, the ulema. The jurists said that slavery is not wrong on religious grounds, but that outlawing it would be within the government's competence--provided that owners were compensated for the manumission of slaves. Nobody has ever applied for compensation."

These black African slaves in Mauritania are subjected to mental and emotional torments that have always been concomitant with slavery. "Routine punishments for the slightest fault include beatings, denial of food and prolonged exposure to the sun, with hands and feet tied together. "Serious" infringement of the master's rule can mean prolonged tortures, documented in a report by Africa Watch. These include 1. The "camel treatment," where a human being is wrapped around the belly of a dehydrated camel and tied there. The camel is then given water and drinks until its belly expands enough to tear apart the slave. 2. The "insect treatment," where insects are put in his ears. The ears are waxed shut. The arms and legs are bound. The person goes insane from the bugs running around in his head. 3. The "burning coals" where the victim is seated flat, with his legs spread out. He is then buried in sand up to his waist, until he cannot move. Coals are placed between his legs and are burnt slowly. After a while, the legs, thighs and sex of the victim are burnt. There are other gruesome tortures--none of which is fit to describe in a family newspaper" states Africa Watch. Another report states that some slaves caught fleeing are often castrated or branded like cattle.

Also Read:

Silent Terror: A Journey into Contemporary African SlaverySilent Terror:
A Journey into Contemporary
African Slavery

by: Samuel Cotton
publisher: Writers & Readers Publishing,
published: 1999-02-15
ASIN: 0863162592